This piece is part of a compilation bringing together Regional Voices on the Challenges of Nuclear Deterrence Stability in Southern Asia.

“In the foreseeable future, the Asian reliance on nuclear weapons will increase.”1
—Ashley J. Tellis

“Nuclear competition in Southern Asia represents a classic conundrum of international relations: enormously high stakes, conflicting and entrenched interests, and at least in the near term, few realistic avenues for mitigating threats.”2
—Daniel Markey

India’s Rationale for Acquiring Nuclear Weapons

With a pacifist strategic culture steeped in Gandhian nonviolence, India is a reluctant nuclear power. Reluctant though it may be, India shares borders with China and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed neighbours with which it has territorial disputes. India sought but was denied nuclear guarantees and had no option but to acquire nuclear weapons. India believes that nuclear weapons are political weapons, not weapons of warfighting: their sole purpose is to deter the use of nuclear weapons and the threat thereof. 3

After conducting five nuclear tests over two days in May 1998, India declared itself a state armed with nuclear weapons. India’s nuclear doctrine professes credible minimum deterrence and is built around a no-first-use posture. This means that India is willing to absorb a first strike and has declared its intention of launching massive retaliation to cause unacceptable damage in response to a first strike. India follows a policy of deterrence by punishment, which uses a countervalue targeting strategy aimed at inflicting unacceptable damage not a counterforce strategy aimed at destroying the adversary’s nuclear forces.4

India’s nuclear force structure is based on a triad: Prithvi short-range ballistic missiles and various versions of the Agni intermediate-range ballistic missile manned by the missile groups of the Indian Army; nuclear glide bombs carried on aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF); and, eventually, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) deployed on ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with the Indian Navy. INS Arihant, the first indigenously designed SSBN, is undergoing sea trials as of 2016 and a second SSBN is reported to be under construction. India has willingly abjured the use of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons (TNWs), which lower the threshold of use due to the proclivity to use them or lose them. Tactical weapons also require complex command and control mechanisms, enhance the risk of unauthorized and accidental launches, are difficult to manufacture, and are costly to maintain.

The total number of warheads that India needs for credible minimum deterrence in a no-first-use scenario has not been articulated by the government. The requirements as estimated by Indian analysts vary widely, from a few dozen warheads at the lower end of the scale to over 400 warheads at the upper end. In terms of required yield, views range from 10- or 12-kiloton bombs to megaton monsters. After the Pokhran tests of May 1998, in which warheads based on both fission and fusion were tested, India claimed that it had acquired the capability to manufacture nuclear warheads with yields varying from sub-kiloton to a maximum of 200 kilotons. Notably, India’s nuclear capabilities are completely indigenous despite the stringent technology-denial regimes and sanctions to which India has been subjected since 1974, when a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) was conducted ostensibly for civilian purposes. While some of the sanctions imposed either in 1974 or after the Pokhran tests in 1998 have been lifted, many others still remain in place.5

Internal Debate on India’s Nuclear Force Structure

India’s quest to become a nuclear power has been comprehensively recorded in books including Weapons of Peace: Secret Story of India’s Quest To Be a Nuclear Power by Raj Chengappa, From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal by Ashley J. Tellis, and India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation by George Perkovich.6 India’s nuclear disarmament efforts have also been well recorded by several authors. What is remarkable in Indian writing on nuclear issues is an almost complete disregard for operational matters, primarily because the vast majority of early nuclear research and development was conducted by the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), with the military’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) only being co-opted at a later stage. The armed forces were not in the loop.

China, which fought a border war with India in 1962, conducted its first nuclear test at Lop Nur on October 16, 1964, and became a de factonuclear power. In retrospect, it is clear that an examination of the impact of China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons was carried out within the Indian government, and that nuclear scientists led by Homi J. Bhabha were quietly given the go-ahead to develop the technology necessary to assemble nuclear warheads, should the government choose to acquire them.7 Intelligence reports about the rapidly developing China-Pakistan nuclear and missile cooperation led to then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri approving the development of a nuclear explosive device, which resulted in the PNE conducted at Pokhran in Rajasthan in May 1974.

Within the government, the nuclear deterrence issue was dealt with by the prime minister. Only a small number of officers outside the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) assisted the prime minister. There was very little public debate about the need to acquire nuclear weapons, and there was even lesser discussion about the size and shape of the arsenal that India should have. K. Subrahmanyam, former director of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi, had consistently argued for a robust nuclear posture for India. Lieutenant Geneneral K. Sundarji, later the chief of army staff, commissioned the well-known Combat Papers as the commandant of the College of Combat at Mhow.8 9 The two papers examined the impact of a nuclear environment on the future of Indian Army battlefield operations but had only limited circulation at the time they were written.

Credible Minimum Deterrence

The first issue of concern for India’s deterrence posture—credible minimum deterrence with a no-first-use commitment, based on a posture of assured retaliation—is the number of high-value targets in adversary countries that India must threaten for deterrence to prevail. The underlying guide of India’s nuclear force size is an estimate of the number of nuclear warheads necessary for India to conduct a countervalue retaliatory strike that emphasizes attacks on large cities and industrial centers. At the heart of the planning process are the questions: How many such targets must Indian nuclear forces plan to destroy in order to ensure that deterrence works? Would it be adequate to target one large, metropolitan industrial center with thermonuclear weapons, or would it be necessary to target ten, 20, or more such centers? Does the strength of deterrence depend on the number of targets in the adversary country that India’s nuclear force is capable of destroying, or does the law of diminishing returns apply after the capability to destroy a certain number of targets has been acquired? These are complex challenges that several reputed nuclear strategists have attempted solve through intuitive logic as well as mathematical solutions based on econometric models and the innovative use of statistics.

Exactly what number of warheads constitutes credible minimum deterrence has never been defined by the Indian government. Most of the analysis in the public domain occurred either in the years before the tests at Pokhran in May 1998, or shortly after. In order to get a sense of the broad contours of India’s nuclear force structure, it is necessary to survey the arsenal sizes recommended by various analysts.

The Minimalist Approach

As pointed out earlier, the nuclear narrative in India has its origins in the writings of K. Subrahmanyam.10 While discussing the contours of India’s nuclear force structure, K. Subrahmanyam wrote: “If a country can project an image of having around 500 nuclear warheads, which India can build in twelve to fifteen years time if it were to set out on the programme and disperse them on its vast area, the country will have a credible deterrent.”11 Even while explaining that minimum deterrence is not a numbers game in the wake of the Pokhran-II tests, he wrote: “Whether it is 150, 250 or 300, the Indian deterrent will still be a minimum one compared to others except Pakistan.”12 However, he is known to have believed that “a force of around 60 deliverable warheads could meet adequately India’s need for a minimum deterrent.”13 For delivering these 60 warheads, Subrahmanyam advocated the development of 20 Prithvi missiles and 20 Agni missiles. The remaining 20 warheads were slated for delivery by air force bomber and fighter-bomber aircraft. Subrahmanyam argued that “if India were to develop a modest force of 20 Agni missiles, the India-China ratio in deterrence capability will still be higher than the present China-U.S. ratio.”14 He did not visualize the need for SSBNs armed with SLBMs. Nor did he make a major distinction between low-yield fission weapons and those in the thermonuclear class, instead emphasizing the importance of solid-fuel missiles: “Whether the warheads are of fifteen kilotons fission or 120-150 kilotons (thermonuclear warheads), both are bound to have a deterrent effect. . . . What is absolutely crucial for credible deterrence is the solid-fuelled missile of appropriate ranges. That is what India needs to concentrate on.”15

Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, who succeeded K. Subrahmanyam as director of IDSA, also advocated a minimalist approach and a time period of fifteen to 20 years for the Indian arsenal to stabilize. He wrote:

The exact size of the arsenal needed at the end-point will need to be worked out by defence planners based on a series of factors. But at this point it is difficult to visualise an arsenal with anything more than a double-digit quantum of warheads. It may be prudent to even plan on the basis of a lower end figure of say 2–3 dozen (survivable) nuclear warheads by the end of 10–15 years. It is necessary to keep in mind the fact that with the passage of time, deterrence decay factors will lead to the requirement of a smaller arsenal rather than a larger one.16

Though he based his force structure on a triad for delivery, he felt that “it would indeed be infructuous to pursue the development or possession of an intercontinental capability to do so,” and that intermediate-range ballistic missiles (with a range between 500 and 5,000 kilometers) would be adequate for India’s requirements. Maharajkrishna Rasgotra, a former foreign secretary, held the view that “some 30 bombs of Hiroshima strength committed against five major targets in Pakistan, 60 deployed against eight to ten targets in China, and another 30 held in reserve for contingencies and deployment at sea, should adequately meet the needs of minimum deterrence. This number (120 warheads in all) allows for possible losses in an enemy first strike and leaves enough for a devastating counterattack.”17

The Middle Path

General K. Sundarji, a former Indian chief of the army staff and a perceptive military thinker, was perhaps the first analyst in India to write about the military aspects of India’s nuclear deterrence. He advocated a nuclear force structure of approximately 150 warheads mounted almost entirely on a Prithvi-Agni missile force.18 Brigadier Vijay K. Nair suggested a force level of 132 nuclear warheads of different types, including weapons in the megaton range.19 For delivery, besides bomber and fighter-bomber aircraft, he recommended five SSBNs with sixteen SLBMs on each, and 48 ballistic missiles—twelve SRBMs and 36 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). He wrote: “India must ensure adequate reserves to provide fail safe assurance of her strategy and yet maintain an adequate force structure after hostilities cease. An additional reserve of two weapon systems is required for each planed autonomous strike and a minimum of 20 percent of the entire force structure should be available for post-strike security imperatives.” Out of a total requirement of 111 nuclear warheads for retaliatory strikes against Pakistan (seventeen targets) and China (eight targets), he felt that 37 warheads were required for strikes and an additional 74 as a “65 percent reserve for reliability.” He added another 22 as a “post-war reserve,” taking the total to 132 warheads.20

Rear Admiral Raja Menon (retired) recommended that India’s nuclear arsenal should be based primarily on SSBNs from about 2020 onward.21 Until then, he felt that India’s nuclear deterrent should be based only on ballistic missiles. He excluded air-delivered warheads from the deterrence calculus because of the destabilizing impact of the short flying time (20 minutes) between Pakistan and India’s forward airfields. He supported the elimination of air-delivered nuclear weapons from the arsenals of both India and Pakistan under mutually agreed nuclear-risk-reduction measures.22

Menon estimated that the modernized Chinese arsenal would comprise 596 warheads after 2010. He suggested that up to 2030 India should maintain an all-missile, land-based force of five regiments with twelve missiles each (survivability being ensured by concealment and rail-garrison mobility), with 50 percent of the missiles having up to four independently targetable warheads per missile. He felt that this arsenal would suffice to withstand the largest possible first strike launched by China and still leave enough missiles remaining to inflict unacceptable damage on China in a second strike. Menon was of the view that India would need a number of hardened silos “if the rate of degradation of the rail garrison missile force is judged to be too rapid.” Against Pakistan, he proposed a force of 200 cruise missiles, 36 of them nuclear tipped, because cruise missiles are the least provocative. He visualized the “handing over of Indian deterrence from the land-based force to the sea-based force . . . over a ten year period . . . [to be] completed by 2030,” and suggested a nuclear force of six SSBNs, each armed with twelve SLBMs. In his view, each SSBN should carry at least twelve missiles and, as India has ambitions to create multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), each missile could, in the future, carry up to ten warheads with yields between 250 and 400 kilotons. Writes Menon, “Such a force would give India a warhead strength of 216 (6 x MIRV) in a pre-launch scenario and probably 380 warheads in a scenario with adequate strategic warning and with five boats deployed. This could be the entire Indian deterrence till the middle of the 21st century.”23 Menon did not feel there was a need for air-delivered nuclear warheads for the Indian deterrent. He wrote: “With opposing airfields separated by barely 20 minutes flying time, it would be a case of use-them-or-lose-them for Pakistan, a fear reinforced by the threat of capture by armored forces, in a country handicapped by lack of strategic depth.”24  

The Maximalist Approach

Bharat Karnad, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is among the first analysts to study Indian nuclear deterrence requirements closely.  He advocates what has been dubbed a maximalist approach to nuclear deterrence and strongly advocates the need for megaton-class thermonuclear weapons in the Indian arsenal. He assumes that India’s primary and secondary target lists could contain about 60 locations in China and Pakistan. In order to ensure, with a small degree of uncertainty, that each of these targets can be destroyed, he recommends targeting each location with four warheads, each of which has a 3-kilometer circular error probable (CEP).25 As it would take time to build a plutonium stockpile, and to design and develop both the intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and the SSBNs necessary for this targeting plan, Bharat Karnad suggests that India’s nuclear arsenal be gradually built up over a period of three decades to a total of 328 nuclear warheads, as given in table 1.26

Table 1: Requirements for Nuclear Warheads

Maximally Strategic*
Minimally Tactical**
2000–2010 57 30 87
2010–2020 131 40 171
2020–2030 268 60 328
Source: Bharat Karnad, “Going Thermonuclear: Why, With What Forces, at What Cost,” United Service Institution Journal 17, no. 3 (July–September 1998): 315.
*Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS), IRBMs, SLBMs, SU-30s armed with N-gravity bombs (NGBs) and N-air-to-surface missiles (N-ASMs) and atomic demolition munitions (ADMs).
**Jaguars and Mirage-2000s armed with NGBs and N-ASMs up to 2010 and SU-30s thereafter.

The breakdown of the final figure of 328 nuclear warheads and the proposed delivery systems suggested by Bharat Karnad includes

  • Four SSBNs with 48 SLBMs (presumably with a single warhead each).
  • 40 SU-30s with 40 NGBs and 40 N-ASMs (maximally strategic) and 30 SU-30s with 30 NGBs and 30 N-ASMs (minimally tactical).
  • 25 ICBMs.
  • 40 IRBMs.
  • 25 ADMs.
  • 50 reserve warheads.

Karnad suggests that 253 of the 278 nonreserve warheads should be thermonuclear. The remaining 25 should be atomic demolition munitions. He writes: “If a counter-cities or counter-value nuclear bombardment strategy is the only one that makes sense, then thermonuclear bombs, with megaton yields, are the most convincing instruments of this strategy.”27 However, the yield potential of India’s current weapons designs is limited. The 45-kiloton, two-stage thermonuclear device tested in 1998 only has the potential to be upgraded to a yield of about 200 kilotons.28 India would have to further refine weapons designs and conduct another round of physical tests in order to develop the megaton-yield weapons that Karnad’s plan requires. As India has unilaterally renounced further nuclear tests, such weapons probably cannot be created. Also, as the accuracy of India’s missiles continues to improve, and as CEPs drop from thousands to hundreds of meters, India might follow in the path of other nuclear states and limit the yield of its weapons to 200–400 kilotons. Yields in this range should be adequate for India’s countervalue strategy, provided India can develop ballistic missiles with a CEP of less than 500 meters.29

R. R. Subramanian, a senior analyst at IDSA and a physicist by training, is of the view that India needs at least 425 warheads if the combined efficiency of the delivery systems is assumed to be 30 percent. At 30 percent efficiency—30 percent of weapons hit and destroy the targets at which they were fired—approximately 125 to 130 warheads could be counted upon to destroy their intended targets. Of these, he estimates that 25 to 30 would be needed to target Pakistan and about 100 would target China.30 To assume that India’s nuclear force would deliver an overall efficiency of only 30 percent is very pessimistic. However, in the absence of accurate factual information about important components of the nuclear force like the targeting and delivery systems, it is hard to contend that a higher efficiency estimate is any more realistic.31

Lieutenant General Pran Pahwa (retired) recommended in a study for the United Service Institution of India (USI) that India’s deterrence should be based on 182 warheads.32 He based his calculations on the assumption that China is likely to employ two warheads each to destroy every Indian warhead, with efficiency as high as 70 to 90 percent.33 10 to 30 percent of Indian warheads would survive a Chinese counterforce first strike. If India had 182 warheads, China would need to fire 364 warheads to eliminate India’s arsenal. Given a Chinese arsenal of about 200–250 warheads, a Chinese first strike would leave about 36 Indian missiles unharmed and an equal number of Chinese missiles unlaunched. Since the numbers remaining would be matched, China would be deterred from launching a first strike in the first place. This argument assumes a generous 80 percent success rate for China, and does not take into account the possibility that a Chinese first strike is likely to combine countervalue with counterforce targets.34

Analysis of India’s Deterrence

It is clear that Indian analysts hold a variety of different views on the number of nuclear warheads that India needs for credible minimum deterrence. The figures vary from the low double digits at the lower end to just over 400 at the upper end. Suggestions for weapons yield range from fission weapons with 15- to 20-kiloton yields to thermonuclear weapons in the megaton range. The recommended delivery vehicles embrace the entire range of the triad, including ICBMs and cruise missiles. As discussed earlier, the sole purpose of India’s nuclear weapons is minimum deterrence: to deter the use of nuclear weapons and the threat thereof. Minimum deterrence is not a numbers game. Its ends are served if the adversary is deterred from crossing the nuclear Rubicon and from threatening to do so. As Kenneth Waltz famously said, “More is not better if less is enough.”35 What matters for India is to find a rational way to determine how much is enough.36

It would not be appropriate to base India’s nuclear forces on a dyad of ballistic missiles and SSBNs. Bomber aircraft carrying nuclear glide bombs are also essential. Besides their dual-use capability and the sunk costs already incurred in the acquisition of nuclear-capable bombers and fighter-bombers, aircraft have a crucial strategic feature: they can be recalled even after they have taken off with nuclear weapons on board.

Basing the nuclear force on SSBNs alone would also be inappropriate for a number of reasons. First, SSBNs do not require the level of targeting flexibility that India’s doctrine requires. Second, it is well known that submerged SSBNs suffer communication problems. Third, with rapid advances in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies, it is becoming increasingly easier to locate and track submarines. By about 2025, advanced navies may be able to map and track the position of submarines anywhere in the ocean. Fourth, the Indian hinterland provides adequate strategic depth and area to disperse India’s ballistic missiles. India’s rail and road networks provide ample opportunity to keep moving the missiles at random, though with attendant problems of command and control. Finally, the force structure of an all-SSBN deterrent would lack interservices balance, which in itself is not desirable.37

India’s Nuclear Force Structure

Number of Warheads Required for Credible Deterrence

Ashley J. Tellis has written: “Since India’s preferred outcome is thus defined solely in terms of deterrence . . . the possession of even a few survivable nuclear weapons capable of being delivered on target, together with an adequate command system, is seen as sufficient to preserve the country’s security.”38 Given the state of industrialization and density of population in developed Western countries, the ability to credibly target three to five large cities would be enough to meet the ends of deterrence of a Western adversary. Targeting so few cities in China, however, may be inadequate, because totalitarian regimes are known to have a high tolerance for civilian casualties. In conversation with Jawaharlal Nehru, Mao Zedong said that even if 300 million Chinese perished in a nuclear war, the remaining 300 million Chinese would build a new glorious civilization.39

In the absence of hard intelligence about what would deter the Chinese, it is appropriate for an Indian nuclear planner to err on the side of caution and plan on a higher number of weapons to ensure that deterrence does not fail. It could be argued that India’s plan for a retaliatory strike should include assured destruction of about ten to twelve major population or industrial centers and two to three high-priority military targets such as SSBN bases and nuclear command and control centers. This should be adequate for the purpose of credible deterrence in the 2010–2020 time frame.40

For Pakistan, the destruction of even a smaller number of carefully selected targets could mean that Pakistan would cease to exist as a state. Pakistan would recognize in advance that an assured destruction capability of eight to ten major-value targets would be a catastrophic disaster of unmanageable proportions. Such a capability would constitute an adequate deterrent threat.

In this regard, K. Subrahmanyam has written on the India-Pakistan-China context:

When we talk of deterrence between Pakistan and India, is Kashmir worth the loss of Lahore for the Pakistanis? Even if they are in a position to hit Delhi, will that compensate for the loss of Lahore and Karachi? Surely not. Will the Chinese risk Kunming and Chengdu at present and even Shanghai and Guangzu later – when India has an operational Agni – for any conceivable political, military and strategic objective? . . . Minimum deterrence is not a numerical definition but a strategic approach.41

Hence, for a retaliatory strategy, attempts at maintaining a numerical parity with the adversary are neither necessary nor desirable. As Kenneth Waltz has written: “Those who foresee intense arms racing among new nuclear states, fail to make the distinction between war-fighting and war-deterring capabilities. Forces designed for war-fighting have to be compared with each other. . . . Forces designed for war-deterring need not be compared. The question is not whether one country has less than another, but whether it can do unacceptable damage to another, with unacceptable damage sensibly defined.” 42 Other senior government functionaries—including Brajesh Mishra, former national security advisor and the principal secretary to the prime minister—have emphatically stated that India has no plans to enter into an arms race with China.43 In India’s context, nuclear deterrence is not a numbers game nor is it likely to become one in future.44

The mechanics of rudimentary nuclear targeting merit mention. To destroy a soft point target (a target that requires an overpressure of 20 pounds per square inch to destroy), ten ballistic missiles with a CEP of 1,000 meters and a warhead yield of 20 kilotons are required for a 90 percent chance of destruction. This is because the single-shot kill probability (SSKP) of such a missile is only about 0.2. If the CEP of the missile could be improved to 200 meters, only one missile would be necessary to achieve a 90 percent SSKP. If the missile could be tipped with a 1-megaton warhead, one missile would still achieve a 90 percent SSKP even if its CEP was as high as 1,000 meters. Soft area targets, like the population and industrial centers that are likely to be the primary targets of India’s countervalue targeting philosophy, would require a much larger number of missiles to destroy with a 90 percent assurance level. In the case of soft area targets, though, India’s Strategic Forces Command may accept a lesser assurance level (possibly 70 to 80 percent) because the damage would be horrendous in any case.

To destroy ten countervalue targets in China, India would need a total of 40 nuclear warheads (at four 200-kiloton-warheads per target) to cause unacceptable damage if the CEP of the delivery systems was 1,000 meters and an assurance level of about 70 percent was acceptable.45 If the efficiency or overall reliability of the whole system was assumed to be 0.5 to 0.6, a reasonable assumption for a modern nuclear force, then 80 warheads must actually be launched for about 40 warheads to be effectively delivered and explode over their targets. This means that India needs 80 warheads and delivery vehicles to survive a first strike. Even if maximum possible concealment and dispersion measures have been taken, including the emplacement of dummy warhead storage sites and dummy mobile missiles, up to 50 percent of the land-based nuclear warheads and delivery systems might be destroyed in a first strike. Of the SLBMs carried by SSBNs, 80 to 90 percent may be expected to survive.

India should, therefore, plan to stock twice the number of land-based warheads and delivery systems that it expects to need. If 25 to 35 percent of India’s deterrence is sea-based, a total of about 150 warheads must be stocked: 120 land-based warheads and about 30 warheads on SLBMs. In addition, India should maintain a prudent level of reserves for larger-than-anticipated damage in a first strike, escalation dominance, and unforeseen eventualities. Escalation dominance and war-termination strategies are dependent on India’s ability to launch counterrecovery strikes and fresh strikes if necessary. Adding one-third the previously calculated required number of warheads should be adequate. In total, then, India needs 200 nuclear warheads for a minimum deterrence policy with a no-first-use strategy against China.

The question naturally arises: what about deterrence against Pakistan? Clearly, 200 warheads with the necessary delivery systems would be more than adequate for deterrence against Pakistan. Doomsayers will, of course, worry about a collusive China-Pakistan first strike. If such an incredible eventuality actually transpired, it would be an extraordinary failure not only of deterrence but also of the entire diplomatic process. In that case, India’s nuclear arsenal would prove to be inadequate even if it was as large as China’s.

India’s current stockpile falls significantly short of the arsenal outlined above. Fissile material stockpiled by India includes 2.4 ± 0.9 tons of HEU and 0.54 ± 0.18 tons of weapons-grade plutonium.46 India’s present nuclear-warheads stockpile has been estimated at 90–110 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.47 Other international estimates vary by about ten warheads.

The Need for a Triad

Many analysts, particularly those in the West, have interpreted the National Security Advisory Board’s reliance on a triad in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine of August 1999 as a potential trigger for an arms race in South Asia.48 Criticism has centered on the view that a doctrine of minimum deterrence does not need a triad of delivery systems: SSBNs with SLBMs are not essential for India’s nuclear force. Such criticism is ill-informed and without objective analytical basis. It would be unrealistic to base India’s retaliatory strike force mainly on aircraft- and land-based ballistic missiles. While all possible targets inside Pakistan can be fully covered by the deep-penetration aircraft in service with the IAF, they lack the range necessary to hit high-value targets both deep in China’s interior and on the densely populated eastern coast.49

Nuclear-Capable Fighter-Bomber Aircraft

Nuclear-capable aircraft in service with the IAF include the SEPECAT Jaguar, Dassault Mirage-2000, and Sukhoi Su-30MKI. India is also in the process of acquiring 36 nuclear-capable Dassault Rafale multi-role fighters from France. Though the Su-30MKI is a multi-role aircraft, using it for a deep-penetration nuclear strike would require a number of specialized air defense– and electronic warfare–capable aircraft as escorts to negotiate vast stretches of the increasingly well-defended Chinese air space. The IAF’s escort aircraft are, for the most part, only capable of tactical ranges. During the final and the most crucial portion of the flight, the Su-30MKIs would have to fly unprotected. Launching nuclear-armed Su-30MKIs without an escort makes them basically inconsequential. Given that any strike launched by India would be retaliatory, the risk of Su-30MKI airbases in eastern India being destroyed during a first strike would also have to be added into the planning parameters. However, these bases provide multiple options and are needed despite the risks.

Surface-to-Surface Ballistic Missile Groups

Under the aegis of its Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP), which was approved by the government on July 26, 1983, India has achieved considerable success in missile development.50 The Prithvi SRBM (1-meter diameter, 150- to 350-kilometer range, and liquid-fuelled) and the multiple models of Agni IRBM (800- to 5,000-kilometer range, and solid-fuelled) have provided India with an assured retaliation capability. While exact details are not known in the public domain, DRDO spokespeople have shared sufficient information to allow for an assessment of the missile’s capabilities. While the Agni-V is still under development, the Agni-IV is reported to be ready for deployment. According to a Ministry of Defense press release, “Agni 3 got [sic] inducted to strengthen India’s strategic might and joined Agni 1, Agni 2, Prithvi II & Dhanush (the naval version of Prithvi capable of being launched from ships even under rough sea conditions).”51

Agni IRBMs are the mainstay of the surface-to-surface leg of India’s strategic forces. With the exception of the Agni-I, all Agni missiles are solid-fuelled with carbon composite heat shields for reentry protection. At least two Agni missile groups are reported to be in service.52 The Agni-V, with a claimed range of 5,000 kilometers, is known to be capable of carrying MIRV warheads.53 A canisterized version of the Agni-V was test-fired on January 15, 2015, from a mobile launcher.54 The process of canisterization means the warhead will be mated with the missile for storage, not stored separately and mounted on the missile shortly before launch. V. K. Saraswat, a former DRDO chief, said the Agni-V had “ushered in fantastic opportunities in . . . building Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapons and launching mini/micro satellites on demand”.55 The DRDO also plans to develop the Agni-VI IRBM, which will be capable of carrying a 3-ton payload of maneuverable MIRVs. The range of the missile is expected to be greater than 6,000 kilometers.56 Table 2 provides a reasonably accurate assessment of the basic characteristics and status of the Agni missile.

Table 2: Agni Series of Ballistic Missiles
Designation  Type Range (kilometers) Payload (kilograms) Status
Agni-I Two-stage, solid/liquid–fuelled SRBM 1,250 1,000 In service. Last tested November 8, 2013.
Agni-II Two-stage, solid-fuelled IRBM 2,500–3,000 1,000 In service. Last tested April 7, 2013.
Agni-III Two-stage, solid-fuelled IRBM 3,000–3,500 2,000 In service. Last tested December 23, 2013.
Agni-IV Two-stage, solid-fuelled IRBM 4,000 1,000 In development. Last tested January 20, 2014.
Agni-V Three-stage, solid-fuelled IRBM; described as ICBM 5,000 Unknown In development. Last tested September 15, 2013.
Source: Brian Cloughley, “India Increases its Uranium Enrichment Programme,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, June 20, 2014,

The Prithvi-I (150-kilometer range), Prithvi-II (250-kilometer range, IAF version), and Prithvi-III (350-kilometer range) surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) are all nuclear-capable. Prithvi missiles are liquid-fuelled with strap-down inertial guidance and a maneuverable trajectory with a CEP likely less than 100 meters. These dual-use missiles are capable of carrying 500- to 1,000-kilogram warheads. Four Prithvi missile groups (222, 333, 444, and 555) are reported to be in service.57 As soon as the Agni-I regiments are fully operational and the missiles have been produced in the required numbers, it should be possible to retire the Prithvi missiles from service with India’s nuclear forces. However, Prithvi missiles are likely to continue to be used for non-nuclear missions and as part of the ballistic missile defense (BMD) technology development program until they become obsolete. A modified Prithvi missile is, for example, the interceptor in the BMD system Prithvi Air Defense (PAD) for exoatmospheric interception. It is also used as a target for an incoming missile.

The Dhanush SSM is a ship-to-surface variant of the Prithvi-III with a maximum range of 350 kilometers. The Nirbhay is a subsonic (Mach 0.7) cruise missile with a maximum range of 1,000 kilometers. The Prahar is a highly maneuverable, precision-strike tactical SSM with a range of 150 kilometers, and is armed with a conventional warhead. Comparable to the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System, it has been conceived as a quick-reaction battlefield support weapon system that fills the range gap between tactical multi-barrel rocket launchers and SRBMs. All of these missiles have been indigenously developed by the Aeronautical Development Establishment and have been produced by Bharat Dynamics Limited.

A substantial proportion of the land-based ballistic missile force would likely be destroyed in a disarming first strike, or even in a conventional strike in the course of a war below nuclear thresholds. Missiles of the lower-range Agni class can be made road- and rail-mobile and can be moved around large areas in a random, unpredictable manner. Though mobile missiles are less vulnerable because they are harder to locate and track, surveillance and target acquisition technologies are improving rapidly and adversaries planning first-strike strategies may be expected to make the required investments in the ISR technology necessary to find mobile missiles.

Missiles can also be housed in hardened, above-ground shelters and moved frequently from one shelter to the other, or emplaced in underground silos that are designed to withstand the overpressures likely to be generated by nuclear explosions of 20 to 30 kilotons. Hardened shelters can be easily spotted by modern satellites and would be destroyed in a disarming first strike. To ensure the survival of a retaliatory capability in hardened shelters, India would have to construct two or three structures for each missile, including some realistic dummy shelters equipped with dummy missiles mounted on actual transporter erector launchers that are frequently moved to simulate the presence of a real missile.58

Fixed silos capable of withstanding a nuclear attack are extremely costly to construct and maintain. So far, it has not been possible even for advanced Western countries to construct shelters capable of withstanding megaton nuclear blasts. Such silos are technologically challenging and prohibitively costly. Should India’s adversaries choose to employ such high-yield weapons in the future, fixed silos would be virtually useless. Even with silos, it is still likely that a first strike would destroy 40 to 50 percent of India’s land-based arsenal. It is for these reasons that there is no move in India to build silos for India’s strategic missiles.59

SLBMs and Cruise Missiles

The first SLBM developed for India’s SSBN fleet is the 700-kilometer-range Sagarika.60 After gaining technical knowledge of the process of soft ejection underwater followed by ignition of the missile motor with the Sagarika, DRDO scientists began developing the K-4 SLBM, which is expected to have a maximum range of 2,000–3,500 kilometers. The K-4 is undergoing technical trials as of 2016. At its maximum range, the K-4 could reach some high-value targets in Pakistan from a standoff distance in the Bay of Bengal. It would, however, still fall short of high-value targets on the Chinese mainland. In order for India to threaten high-value targets in China with the K-4, SSBNs would have to patrol very close to the Chinese coastline. With these targets in mind, India will inevitably have to develop an SLBM with a range of 5,000 kilometers.

The BrahMos supersonic cruise missile was developed jointly with Russia. It is designed to be launched from land-based mobile launchers, surface ships, submarines, and fighter-bomber aircraft. It has a maximum range of 290 kilometers and carries up to a 300-kilogram conventional warhead. The maximum speed of the missile is Mach 2.8, almost three times faster than the U.S. Tomahawk subsonic cruise missile. INS Rajput was the first Indian ship to be equipped with BrahMos missiles in 2005. The first army regiment was equipped with BrahMos missiles in 2007, and the second five years later in 2012. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited handed over the first Su-30MKI modified for the BrahMos missile to BrahMos Aerospace in February 2015.61 The BrahMos-II, a hypersonic version of the missile with a scramjet engine, is under development. There are currently no plans to arm the BrahMos with nuclear warheads; reports to this effect are misleading.62 India will never violate the provisions of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) by arming the BrahMos with a nuclear warhead. Though India is not a signatory of the MTCR, Russia—the co-developer of the BrahMos—is.

Why SSBNs are Necessary

Air bases are susceptible to destruction in a disarming first strike.63 India’s strategic aircraft are vulnerable to in-flight interception by enemy air defenses. A large proportion of India’s land-based ballistic missiles may be destroyed before they can be launched. As such, there is no option for India but to deploy a true triad by adding submarine-launched ballistic missiles on nuclear-powered submarines to the country’s nuclear arsenal as soon as both SSBNs and SLBMs can be developed. SSBNs are fairly safe from detection even with state-of-the-art ISR technology. They are not vulnerable to a so-called zero warning surprise attack, and are not affected by increases in the adversaries’ missile accuracy unless they are anchored in a submarine base at the time of attack. Submarines also have their limitations, not the least of which are the technological complexity of achieving the desired missile launch accuracy from a mobile platform and the difficulty of communicating targeting information and executive orders while submerged. With those limitations in mind, SLBMs would provide India value for money only if they could be developed to reach targets at or beyond 5,000 kilometers, so that they can reach all likely targets while remaining well offshore of adversary countries.

India’s SSBNs should be capable of operating from patrol bases in the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific Ocean, and should be equipped for spending at least 30 to 40 days continuously at sea. As stated earlier, Brigadier Vijay Nair is of the view that India needs four SSBNs, each with 16 SLBMs; Bharat Karnad suggests five SSBNs in India’s nuclear force, each with 12 SLBMs; and Rear Admiral Raja Menon has recommended a force of six SSBNs, each equipped with 12 SLBMs. Six SSBNs are obviously preferable to four or five because they provide redundancy. However, the difference in capital costs would be considerable. Sailing four SSBNs with one on patrol at all times should meet India’s requirements for deterrence well into the first few decades of the twenty-first century.64

India’s Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) program to construct nuclear-powered submarines began in the mid-1980s. While the ATV program was already underway, the Indian Navy gained valuable experience from operating INS Chakra-I, a Charlie-I-class nuclear-powered submarine (K-43) leased from the Soviet Union from 1988 to 1991.65 India’s second Soviet-built boat, an 8,000 ton Akula-II-class hunter-killer submarine christened INS Chakra-II, is currently in service. It was inducted on a ten year lease from Russia in April 2012. The INS Chakra-II will also act as a training platform for the future SSBN fleet. India’s first indigenous SSBN, the 6,000-ton INS Arihant (codenamed S-2), is undergoing sea trials as of 2016 and is expected to be declared fully operational sometime in the same calendar year. Its nuclear reactor attained criticality on August 10, 2013.66 Two other Arihant-class SSBNs are known to be under construction.67 While INS Aridhaman (S-3) is expected to begin sea trials in 2016, the third boat (S-4) is still in an early stage of fabrication and some years away from launch.

Nuclear Forces: Phased Development

In India, the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) makes all decisions regarding the number of warheads to be stockpiled for credible minimum deterrence and the broad force structure necessary to deliver these warheads. The Executive Council of the NCA makes all functional level decisions, including the number and location of missile bases, storage sites, and C4I2SR resources. The Political Council is headed by the prime minister while the national security adviser heads the Executive Council.

Given India’s deterrence requirements and nuclear resources discussed above, it is reasonable to assume that India’s nuclear force is being enlarged in phases over three decades. Midcourse corrections are likely to be made based on the availability of new technologies. Depending on the pace of development in China and whether China democratizes, the plan for countervalue strikes on ten large population and industrial centers should be revisited around 2020. In the nuclear era, strategy has never been the sole determinant of force architecture. This, according to Rajesh Rajagopalan, is exemplified by the U.S. decision to deploy MIRVed missiles when the technology became available in order to help the United States circumvent nuclear-arms-reduction negotiations.68 The trajectory of technology will continue to drive nuclear force structures, so force structures must be made flexible enough to adapt to changing technology.

While the exact contours of India’s nuclear force structure have never been disclosed by the government, table 3 outlines one possible set of contours.69 According to Global Zero, India spent $4.9 billion on nuclear weapons in 2011.70

Table 3: Possible Nuclear Force Structure: 2000–2030
Phase I: 2000–2010
Delivery System Quantity Warheads
Prithvi Two groups 16 (20- to 30-kiloton, fission)
Agni-I and -II Two groups 24 (200-kiloton, thermonuclear)
Dhanush Four to eight launchers 8 (20- to 30-kiloton, fission)
Su-30MKI, Mirage 2000, Jaguar -- 32 (200-kiloton, thermonuclear)
    Total: 80 warheads
Phase II: 2011–2020

Delivery System
Quantity Warheads
Prithvi Four groups 16 (20- to 30-kiloton, fission)
Agni-II and -III Two groups 24 (200-kiloton, thermonuclear)
Agni-IV and -V Two groups 36 (200-kiloton, thermonuclear)
SSBN Two boats; 24 SLBM launchers 26 (200-kiloton, thermonuclear)
Su-30MKI, Mirage 2000, Rafale -- 48 (200-kiloton, thermonuclear)
    Total: 150 warheads
Phase III: 2021–2030

Delivery System
Quantity Warheads
Agni-I, -II, -III, and -IV Four groups 96 (200-kiloton, thermonuclear)
Agni-VI and Surya One group 18 (200-kiloton, thermonuclear)
SSBN Four boats, 48 SLBM launchers 50 (200-kiloton, thermonuclear)
Su-30MKI and replacement -- 36 (200-kiloton, thermonuclear)
    Total: 200 warheads
Source: Gurmeet Kanwal, Nuclear Defence: Shaping the Arsenal (New Delhi: Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses and Knowledge World Publishers, 2001), 137.

Relative Nuclear Capabilities of India, China, and Pakistan

Nuclear forces cannot be compared by simply counting warheads, because deterrence is not completely a matter of numbers.71 Effective nuclear deterrence is a combination of many factors, including the number of warheads stockpiled; available means of delivery and their technological efficiency; the command and control structure and its efficacy under attack; and the political will necessary to order retaliation. Nevertheless, it is necessary to take stock of the nuclear capabilities of India’s adversaries, as the availability of technologies like BMD can have a material bearing on the ideal force structure.

The nuclear nexus between China and Pakistan has been well documented and poses a major strategic challenge to India. China is known to have provided direct assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, by providing warhead designs and enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for at least two nuclear bombs. Further, China has clandestinely transferred dual-use technology and materials for the development of nuclear weapons to Pakistan. China has violated its treaty obligations under the NPT and the MTCR by helping Pakistan with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs. It has helped Pakistan build reactors at the Chashma and Khushab nuclear facilities, enabling Pakistan to produce weapons-grade plutonium. China has also transferred M-9 and M-11 nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to Pakistan and facilitated the transfer of Taepo Dong and No Dong ballistic missiles from North Korea to Pakistan.

Estimates of the number of nuclear warheads held by China, India, and Pakistan vary. A fairly reliable estimate based on a number of authoritative sources is given in table 4.72

Table 4: Southern Asia Nuclear Forces, October 2015
Country Year of First Nuclear Test Total Arsenal Estimates
China 1964 250
India 1974 110–120
Pakistan 1998 110–130
Source: Eleanor Albert,“Southern Asia's Nuclear Powers,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 6, 2015,

China’s Nuclear Forces

China is rapidly modernizing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force (previously called the Second Artillery Force [SAF]).73 According to China’s 2006 white paper on national defense: “The Second Artillery Force is striving to build a streamlined and effective strategic force with both nuclear and conventional capabilities. It is quickening its steps to raise the informationisation level of its weaponry and equipment systems, build an agile and efficient operational command and control system, and increase its capabilities of land-based strategic nuclear counter-strikes and precision strikes with conventional missiles.” 74 Seven years later, in 2013, a new white paper stated: “The PLASAF capabilities of strategic deterrence, nuclear counterattack and conventional precision strike are being steadily elevated.” 75

China’s solid-fuelled, long-range missiles put it well ahead of India in terms of missile technology. Its new IRBM (DF-21) and its new ICBM (DF-31) are reported to have been introduced into service as of 2016. China’s Julong-2 SLBM, carried by the Han-class SSBN, has also been tested several times and has been approved for operational service. While China still has some megaton-yield warheads in its nuclear stockpile, it is moving mainly toward warheads between 200 and 400 kilotons as missile accuracies improve. Over the next fifteen to 20 years, China is likely to substantially improve its nuclear deterrence capabilities, particularly with ICBMs that can threaten the mainland United States, and SLBMs that provide for an accurate second strike. For a comprehensive description of the characteristics of China’s ballistic missiles, see the 2014 report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.76

China has approximately 250 nuclear warheads in its arsenal, which gives it the capability to attack all major Indian cities with nuclear weapons. While China has declared a no-first-use nuclear policy, it has added the caveat that such a policy is not applicable to Chinese territory.77 This clearly means that if there is a future India-China conflict over Arunachal Pradesh, China’s no-first-use policy will not be applicable because China claims the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory. Given that the Agni-II and Agni-III IRBMs are operational, and the Agni-IV on the way, India will also soon have the capability to target most high-value targets in southern China with nuclear warheads. Both countries will have the capability to deter each other. This is likely to lead to the classic stability-instability paradox. While nuclear deterrence will prevail at the strategic level and prevent large-scale conflict from breaking out, the tactical-level situation may include more transgressions across the border, patrol face-offs, and even patrol clashes leading to a limited border conflict. India must develop the capability to take the fight into territory across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The strike corps being raised for the mountains (17 Corps) will contribute substantially to this aim.

Should China ever decide to launch a disarming first strike against India (an improbable but not an impossible scenario), the strike is likely focus on counterforce targets, but may also include some countervalue targets. All air bases, missile silos, hardened shelters for ballistic missiles, rail-mobile-missile marshalling railway yards, military headquarters, communications centers, and strategic choke points (such as the rail and road bridges across the Brahmaputra River) in eastern and northeastern India are likely to be targeted. Only the most skillfully and innovatively concealed nuclear force installations are likely to survive. Similar counterforce targets, as well as population and industrial centers, in other parts of the country will also be hit and will suffer varying degrees of damage. In order to retaliate effectively, India’s nuclear warheads and launchers must be widely dispersed and well concealed over peninsular India, the command and control structure must be robust and survivable, the communications system must be fail-safe, and the armed forces must be well integrated in India’s nuclear deterrence strategies.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Forces

Pakistan has the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world. Pakistan is preparing for what its key functionaries and analysts have called full spectrum deterrence. The phrase implies a deterrent force from the strategic level down to the tactical level, making use of all possible delivery systems including tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons (TNWs). Pakistan has been testing its ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable cruise missiles at the rate of one every two months on average. It is apparently engaged in improving the accuracy of its North Korean–origin No Dong and Taepo Dong missiles and Chinese M-9 and M-11 missiles.

Most recently, Pakistan has developed the Nasr (Hatf-IX) missile with a maximum range of 60 kilometers. Pakistan claims the missile is nuclear-capable, and the army intends to use it to attack Indian forces inside Pakistani territory during an Indian offensive. This missile is apparently Pakistan’s answer to India’s Cold Start doctrine. Shyam Saran, the chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, clarified India’s position on the use of TNWs, possibly with prior government approval: “India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective.”78 It is obvious that Pakistan’s army has not thought through the full ramifications of the use of TNWs.

A 2015 report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists details Pakistan’s nuclear delivery systems, their approximate ranges, and the year of first deployment.79 The air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) Raad (Hatf-VIII) was tested in January 2016—Pakistan claims the test was successful. This ALCM is claimed to be nuclear capable and has a range of 350 kilometers.

Pakistan’s nuclear warheads were initially based on a Chinese design that used highly enriched uranium as the fissionable core. Pakistan is now known to be gradually switching over to plutonium-239 for future nuclear warheads. Peter Lavoy has written: “According to public estimates of Pakistan’s fissile material stockpile at the end of 2006, Islamabad probably had amassed between 30 and 85 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium from its Khushab research reactor and between 1300 and 1700 kilograms of weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the Kahuta gas centrifuge facility. The Khushab reactor can probably produce between 10 and 15 kilograms of plutonium per year. Kahuta may be able to produce 100 kilograms of HEU each year. Assuming that Pakistani scientists require 5 to 7 kilograms of plutonium to make one warhead, and 20 to 25 kilograms of HEU to produce a bomb, then Pakistan would have accumulated enough fissile material to be able to manufacture between 70 and 115 nuclear weapons by the end of 2006.” 80 Hans M. Kristensen, detailing estimates of Pakistan’s fissile material and weapons stockpiles, shows that Pakistan has not only closed the nuclear warhead quantity gap with India, it has overtaken India.81

Measures to Enhance the Effectiveness of India’s Nuclear Deterrence

The arsenals of nuclear states are trending toward more modern and high quality forces, and recent arms reduction efforts by the United States and Russia have slowed.82 Both China and Pakistan are engaged in upgrading their nuclear warheads and delivery systems. Nations like Iran and various terrorist groups are expressing their nuclear ambitions openly, and there is still a possibility of a political-military meltdown in Pakistan, so the proliferation of nuclear weapons around India remains a cause for concern. Credible nuclear deterrence will continue to play a crucial role in India’s national security calculus over the next few decades.

In line with the emerging trends, India must endeavor to modernize its nuclear warheads and delivery systems and keep the option of further testing open, in case tests become necessary in the future. In particular, India must close the missile-technology gap with both China and Pakistan as early as possible, or else the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrence will remain suspect. The following imperatives merit the Indian government’s attention:

Effectiveness of Delivery Systems

India must step up efforts to acquire missiles with ranges between 5,000 and 10,000 kilometers for better long-range deterrence against China. The Agni-VI/Surya program, which can benefit from the Indian Space Research Organization’s Polar Stationary Launch Vehicle and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, needs to be given high research and development priority. 

For a nation that follows a no-first-use nuclear doctrine and is willing to absorb a nuclear first strike, genuine deterrence can be provided only by a robust, infallible, and potentially insuperable nuclear force including SSBNs armed with nuclear-tipped SLBMs. It is imperative for India to make all efforts to operationalize its SSBNs as early as possible. Until SSBNs enter service with the Indian Navy, a small number of surface combatants in both the eastern and western naval fleets should be equipped with nuclear-tipped missiles to add variety to the direction of launch that an adversary must counter.

Testing of Warheads and Missiles

As only six nuclear tests have been conducted by India, the country’s nuclear-warhead designs are based on a paucity of empirical data. Despite the availability of sophisticated computer simulation and modeling techniques for improved warhead design, India must retain the option to carry out further nuclear tests if and when tests are technically necessary and politically feasible. Signing the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is not a viable policy option for India in the near future. Similarly, India’s IRBMs have been inducted into service after only a limited number of flight tests. Testing of the Agni series of missiles should continue—both to inspire confidence among the users manning these missiles and to enhance the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrence by showcasing their technological maturity and accuracy of India’s delivery systems. Meanwhile, India’s diplomats must endeavor to add value to credible deterrence through appropriate interventions in international fora.

Technological Developments

The deployment of effective BMD systems will considerably enhance the quality of India’s deterrence. Efforts must continue to acquire this capability through the use of imported systems as well as through indigenous research and development as early as possible. Actually deciding to deploy BMD, however, will depend on whether China and Pakistan opt for BMD systems. In view of the MIRV developments in China, it would be prudent to make India’s research program on MIRV technologies public but maintain its status as a technology demonstrator.

India is faced with a continuing nuclear nexus between China and Pakistan. As no nation can go it alone in an endeavor as complex as nuclear deterrence, it is in India’s interest to seek out strategic partners who might stand by India diplomatically and, where possible, by providing technological support that does not violate treaty obligations.

Need for Nuclear Signaling

Given the doubts raised over India’s nuclear tests in May 1998, tangible measures need to be adopted to signal the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrence. Similarly, nuclear signaling must be conducted to convince India’s adversaries of the resolve of India’s political leadership to order so-called massive retaliation.

Nonproliferation Measures and Treaty Obligations

New nuclear weapons states, especially those in India’s neighborhood such as Iran, are not in India’s national interest. India should cooperate with the international community to further nonproliferation efforts even while remaining outside the NPT. India must continue to make efforts to enhance nuclear confidence-building measures and nuclear risk-reduction measures with Pakistan so as to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear detonations, and it must extend these efforts to negotiating similar measures with China as well.

It is not in India’s interest to sign the CTBT at present because it is important to retain the option of further nuclear testing for political purposes, even though testing may not be technically crucial. India should consider joining the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty only after stockpiling sufficient fissile material for a credible minimum-deterrence arsenal. Nonetheless, India should continue to participate in the negotiations which are likely to go on for five to ten years.  For counterproliferation efforts to succeed, international support is needed for the Proliferation Security Initiative and Container Security Initiative launched by the United States. India should join these initiatives as an equal partner after ensuring that Indian interests are safeguarded.


India’s nuclear deterrence policy should work in parallel along twin tracks: continuing to enhance the quality of India’s nuclear deterrence while simultaneously working to achieve total nuclear disarmament in the shortest possible time frame. Total nuclear disarmament is in India’s national interest because it will eliminate the risk of nuclear war and also provide a level playing field between countries. India must strive to achieve this goal through vigorous diplomacy, mobilizing all its strategic partners and friends in the United Nations. This should be an important foreign policy objective. The political leadership and the senior bureaucracy must be regularly briefed and sensitised about the complexities of nuclear deterrence so that they can make realistic assessments of military options during crises.83

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retired) is a Delhi-based adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.


1 Eleanor Albert, “Southern Asia’s Nuclear Powers,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 6, 2015,

2 Ibid.

3 Portions of this publication have been reproduced with permission from the author: Gurmeet Kanwal, “Deterrence Marks Policy,” Deccan Herald,May 13, 2015,

4 Portions of this publication have been reproduced with permission from the author: Gurmeet Kanwal, “Foreword,” in Aftermath of a Nuclear Attack: A Case Study in Post-strike Operations, Anil Chauhan (New Delhi: CLAWS, Pentagon Press, 2010).

5 Kanwal, “Deterrence Marks Policy.”

6 Raj Chengappa, Weapons of Peace (New Delhi: HarperCollins India, 2000); From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2000); Ashley J. Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001); George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000).

7 Homi J. Bhabha, known as the father of India’s nuclear program, was the founder-director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Trombay Atomic Energy Establishment, now named Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC).

8 The institution is now known as the Army War College.

9 K. S. Sundarji ed., Effects of Nuclear Asymmetry on Conventional Deterrence (Mhow, India: College of Combat, 1981); K. S. Sundarji ed., Nuclear Weapons in Third World Context (Mhow, India: College of Combat, August 1981).

10 Ibid.

11 K. Subrahmanyam, “India’s Response,” in India and the Nuclear Challenge, ed. K. Subrahmanyam (New Delhi: Lancer International, 1986), 276.

12 Ibid.

13 K. Subrahmanyam, “Nuclear Force Design and Minimum Deterrence Strategy for India,” in Bharat Karnad ed., Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond (New Delhi: Viking Penguin India, 1994), 189–93.

14 K. Subrahmanyam, “China and Nuclear Rationale,” Economic Times, July 26, 1997.

15 Ibid.; Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure,” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, September 2000,

16 Jasjit Singh, “A Nuclear Strategy for India,” in Nuclear India, ed. Jasjit Singh (New Delhi: Knowledge World, 1998), 315.

17 Maharajkrishna Rasgotra, “Countering Nuclear Threats,” in Securing India’s Future in the New Millennium, ed. Brahma Chellaney (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1999), 238–9; Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

18 K. Sundarji, “Imperatives of Indian Minimum Deterrence,” Agni, May 1996, 21.

19 Vijay K. Nair, Nuclear India (New Delhi: Lancer International, 1992), 170–82.

20 Ibid.; Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

21 Raja Menon, A Nuclear Strategy for India (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2000), 177–234.

22 Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

23 Ibid.

24 Raja Menon, “The Nuclear Doctrine: Yoking a Horse and Camel Together,” Times of India, August 26, 1999; Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

25 Circular error probable (CEP) is a measure of the accuracy of delivery. It measures the radius of the circle within which, on average, 50 percent of the missiles aimed at a particular target will fall.

26 Bharat Karnad, “Going Thermonuclear: Why, With What Forces, at What Cost,” U. S. I. Journal 17, no. 3 (July–September 1998): 315; Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

27 Ibid.

28 “India Can Produce N-Bomb of 200 Kiloton: Chidambaram,” Times of India, May 23, 1998.

29 Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

30 R. R. Subramanian, in discussion with the author, January 2016.

31 Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

32 Pran Pahwa, Organisation and Employment of Strategic Rocket Forces (New Delhi: United Service Institution of India, 1999), 294–6.

33 Pran Pahwa, “Minimum Deterrent: Defining the Concept,” Tribune, February 11, 1999.

34 Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

35 Kenneth N. Waltz, “What will the Spread of Nuclear Weapons do to the World?” in International Political Effects of the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, ed. John K. King (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 1979), 188.

36 Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

37 Ibid.

38 Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture.

39 K. Subrahmanyam, “No More Hibakushas,” Economic Times, June 18, 1998.

40 Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

41 K. Subrahmanyam, “Not a Numbers Game:  Minimum Cost of N-Deterrence,” Times of India, December 7, 1998.

42 Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better,” Adelphi Papers 21, no. 171 (1981):

43 “No Plans for N-Arms Race China: Brajesh,” Times of India, February 7, 2000.

44 Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

45 G. Balachandran has estimated that to destroy eight soft area targets a total of 800 missiles would be necessary if the missiles were armed with a 20-kiloton fission warhead and had a CEP of 1,000 meters (100 missiles per target). The plutonium required for such an attack would be nearly 2,500 kilograms.

46 “Countries: India,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, February 4, 2013,

47 “16 June 2014: Nuclear Forces Reduced while Modernizations Continue, Says SIPRI,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, June 16, 2014,

48 Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

49 Ibid.

50 “BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile,” BrahMos Aerospace,; Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

51 “Shri AK Antony as Defence Minister -A Look Back,” press release, Ministry of Defense, March 5, 2014,

52 Girja Shankar Kaura, “Agni Missiles to be Handed Over to Army,” Tribune, September 24, 2003,

53 Chinese media has claimed the missile’s actual range is 8,000 kilometers. See “Agni-V’s Actual Range 8,000 km: China,” Outlook, April 20, 2012,

54 “Cannisterised Agni-V ICBM Test Fired Successfully,” press release, Defense Research and Development Organization, January 31, 2015,

55 Manpreet Sethi, “The Strategic Significance of Agni-V,” Scholar Warrior 4, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 92–97.

56 “Advanced Agni-6 Missile with Multiple Warheads Likely by 2017,” Business Standard, May 8, 2013.

57 Kaura, “Agni Missiles to be Handed Over to Army.”

58 Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

59 Ibid.

60 “BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile,” BrahMos Aerospace.

61 Ibid.

62 Zachary Kech, “India’s New Mega Weapon: Nuclear-Armed Supersonic Missiles,” National Interest, April 22, 2015,

63 Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Force Structure.”

64 Ibid.

65 “India Submarine Capabilities,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, January 28, 2015,

66 “BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile,” BrahMos Aerospace.

67 Rajat Pandit, “India to Lease Second Nuclear Submarine from Russia,” Times of India, December 17, 2014,

68 Rajesh Rajagopalan, “The Advocates of Armageddon: Nuclear War and the Victory Theorists,” Strategic Analysis 11, no. 8 (November 1987): 935–6.

69 Gurmeet Kanwal, Nuclear Defence: Shaping the Arsenal (New Delhi: Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses and Knowledge World Publishers, 2001), 137.

70 Eleanor Albert, “Southern Asia’s Nuclear Powers.”

71 Portions of this section have been reproduced with permission from the author: Gurmeet Kanwal, “Why Pakistan is becoming China’s 23rd Province,” Daily O, April 19, 2015,

72 Ibid.

73 For details see Monika Chansoria, Nuclear China: Veiled Secret (New Delhi: KW Publishers, 2014), 251–334.

74 State Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defence in 2006 (Beijing: State Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, December 30, 2006).

75 State Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces (Beijing: State Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, April 16, 2013).

76 “Design Characteristics of China’s Ballistic and Cruise Missile Inventory,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, November 2014,

77 This has been documented by several analysts. Among others, see Manpreet Sethi, Nuclear Strategy: India’s March towards Credible Deterrence (New Delhi: KW Publishers, 2009), 133.

78 Indrani Bagchi, “Strike by Even a Midget Nuke Will Invite Massive Response, India Warns Pakistan,” Times of India, April 30, 2013,

79 Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Pakistani Nuclear Forces, 2015,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2015,

80 Peter R. Lavoy, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Posture: Implications of Indo-US Cooperation” (paper presented at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, August 2007). Dr. Lavoy has cited “Global Stocks of Nuclear Explosive Materials,” Institute for Science and International Security, July 12, 2005, He also says that, “A separate study by a team of Indian and Pakistani analysts puts Pakistan’s plutonium inventory slightly higher (90 kilograms) and its HEU holding slightly lower (1,300 kilograms).” Zia Mian et al., Fissile Materials in South Asia: The Implications of the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal (Princeton, NJ: International Panel on Fissile Materials, September 2006), 3.

81 Hans M. Kristensen, “Pakistani Nuclear Forces 2011,” Strategic Security (blog), Federation of American Scientists, July 17, 2011,

82 Portions of this section have been reproduced with permission from the author: Gurmeet Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Deterrence,” in In the National Interest: A Companion Volume, ed. Santosh Kumar (New Delhi: Business Standard Books and ICRIER, 2011), 14–32.

83 Several analysts have averred that during the Kargil conflict in 1999, Operation Parakram in 2001–2002, and in the wake of the Mumbai terror strikes on November 26, 2008, Indian political leadership was wary of the possibility of a Pakistani nuclear retaliation if certain military options were exercised. See, for example, Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 257–82.